Review by Dan Skip Allen
(L to R) Thira ‘Aum’ Chutikul as Commander Kiet, Popetorn ‘Two’ Soonthornyanakijas Dr Karn, Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, Colin Farrell as John Volanthen and Viggo Mortenson as Rick Stanton in THIRTEEN LIVES, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Photo credit: Vince Valitutti © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Ron Howard is going on his fifth decade as a film director. He's come a long way since the days of the Roger Corman production Grand Theft Auto. Since those early days of doing comedies, he's leaned in on doing more true-life stories such as Apollo 13 and many more after that: A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Rush, and his most recent, Hillbilly Elegy. He has again chosen to direct a true-life story with his latest film, Thirteen Lives, about the thirteen Thai soccer players and their coach that got stuck in the Tham Luan Nang Non cave in Northern Thailand.
The film starts with the boys and their coach practicing soccer before heading to the cave to go swimming. In something unusual for that time of year, some storms start flooding the cave, stranding everybody deep inside the cave, so they aren't able to swim out by themselves. When they don't come home, their parents get worried and head to the cave to see where their children are. They quickly learn that their children are stranded, and they need help rescuing them. They enlist help from the Thai NAVY Seals and various other experts on the cave system.
Eventually, some British divers and cave explorers are also called in for help.
Ron Howard takes some huge swings with how he chooses to film this movie. He put the camera right with the various divers swimming through the cave system. They experience multiple obstacles, including rough waters, stalactites, and tight spots to fit through. When tragedy soon strikes one of the divers, the diplomats and various other notables start worrying about how they will get the boys and their coach out. This becomes a real survival tale for all involved. Howard uses several ways to show their concern. He changes focus and cuts back and forth between the rescue effort and another group trying to divert water from the cave.
Howard uses mostly Thai/Asian actors in the film, but he does bring out the big guns such as Colin Farrell as John Volanthen, Viggo Mortensen as Richard Stanton, and eventually Joel Edgerton as Richard Harris. These three bring gravitas to this otherwise unknown cast to American audiences. All the actors involved, including the actors that play the parents, the other rescue workers, and politicians, are superb in their roles. The three leads try to do something with their voices to become these men, and it worked for me in the context of the film.
This film could be just another paint-by-numbers true story, but it's not. It ramps up the tension the longer the film goes, and the run time isn't short — it's two hours and twenty-seven minutes long. However, a film should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story the director intends to tell. During the rescue mission, various variables are thrown in the way of the divers, and these issues make for teeth-grinding suspense for those watching the film. It's a gut-wrenching situation for everyone involved. You can really feel the tension as the film progresses. This is one of the best aspects of this story and film.
Another aspect of the film I thought was very effective in getting information to those watching was graphics on the screen depicting the length of the cave, distances between each stopping point, and how long it takes to get from point A to point Z. This was a great tool for understanding the mission as a whole. Also, a generally unhelpful device that worked in this circumstance was the Thai news outlets, saying what they were reporting and giving the audience news as things were happening. The media outlets played a considerable part in this story and were useful instead of a detriment.
A documentary came out last year called The Rescue on National Geographic and Disney+. These two films are distinctly different even though they tell the same story. Thirteen Lives is filmed in a way that makes it original and groundbreaking with the camera work. We, the viewers, feel like we are a part of this mission from the perspective of the rescue divers. We are put in their shoes. The acting by the three leads and the other Thai actors is solid. Howard does a few things that make this film and story go to the next level, and those are the various ways he gets the information across to the viewer and shows how everybody involved is vital to the rescue effort. This is a masterclass of filmmaking from one of this generation's best directors.
Thirteen Lives is now playing in theaters and hits Prime Video on August 5.